What happens when you build media buzz based on a product that doesn’t exist? You might see something akin to 2017’s Fyre Festival debacle, in which shady businessman Billy MacFarland conned people into buying tickets to a festival that never fully materialized, driven by a delusional “we’ll figure it out later” mentality that saw him defraud investors out tens of millions of dollars, and landed him in jail.
“Fyre Fraud” serves as a companion piece to “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened”, which premiered on Netflix in 2019, and was co-produced by Jerry Media, the advertising company that heavily promoted Fyre Festival, and whose main claim to fame is the [Expletive] Jerry Instagram page, which is infamous for reposting and profiting off of other people’s content without permission, often cited as one of the founders of influencer culture — an assertion that I deeply disagree with and personally see as fiction, as while that Instagram account was one of the earliest to learn how to make money off of the site, they did so not through their own original content that defines influencer culture, and I would argue that influencer culture actually predates Instagram itself, which launched in 2010, finding its roots during the days of early YouTube and Newgrounds.
Regardless, I am interested to see how the two documentaries contrast. While “Fyre Fraud” has the benefit of not being produced by Jerry Media, it would seem based on review scores that it is the lesser documentary, though it pulls no punches on its subject matter. The film has original interviews from MacFarland, who seems to think he can clear his name, but only ends up exposing himself as a pathological liar whose main business ideology seemed to be to sell customers and investors on a product that either doesn’t exist, or is nowhere near finished, and satisfy those people by employing the exact same scheme on other people.
MacFarland’s partnership with Jerry Media, documented through the eyes of a former employee who ran the Fyre Festival’s social media campaign, was the perfect match-up for catastrophe, as Jerry Media used their platform and connections to get influencers like Kendall Jenner to make the Fyre Festval go viral, and Jerry Media wasn’t necessarily asking questions about the legitimacy of MacFarland’s venture, which is completely in line with the dubious history of that company. “Fyre Fraud” paints Jerry Media as an uncaring agency who will do anything asked of them for their client, whether that be to push a phony festival onto prominent social media influencers and musicians who have reputations to uphold, or to silence dissent by sending cease-and-desist letters to those critical of their client. “Fyre Fraud” portrays Jerry Media as an enabling force for MacFarland’s festival debacle, though in truth, I don’t expect an advertising agency to necessarily act as the voice of moral reason for their clients, though it would have been wise for the company to do some background research on MacFarland beforehand, as their involvement with the Fyre Festival greatly hurt their reputation, and his plan for the festival didn’t hold up to even the most basic scrutiny.
MacFarland is given a decent amount of screen time, and the film goes to great lengths to show how he is a product of his environment and time, especially in an era where everyone is obsessed with social media, and where we have Silicon Valley startups that often sell investors on an idea presumed to be made into a reality later. I can see what the directors were trying to do, but their efforts to try to tie MacFarland into a larger picture comes off as half-baked and underdeveloped.
In truth, MacFarland comes off as a bad businessman who has too many ideas that he wants to sell, but not execute. He is tragic in a way, as he is someone who had all the means to succeed in business if he only slowed down and allowed himself to fully develop one idea — for example, the film shows how he used to run a company named Magnises that made metal credit/debit cards that had exclusive perks that could have been a great thing for MacFarland had be not pushed his half-baked Fyre Festival, and focused on refining the product he already had that people wanted. But he’s also irredeemable, as the film shows how he continued to get people involved in schemes even when he was out on bail, which led him to serve a longer prison sentence. He seems like someone who will never learn his lesson, and because of this, I doubt this is the last we’ll hear from him when he eventually gets out of prison.
“Fyre Fraud” has some wonderful interviews from those responsible for the Fyre Festival debacle, but the film itself has a weak narrative. Despite the fact that the documentary has relatively young directors (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason), the film has a very surface-level understanding of social media influencer culture, and it feels like it was written by a 40-year-old. I feel like the film spends so much time trying to define very broad social media trends that it loses site of what it’s trying to say, and as such, the film is very unfocused. It documents a debacle that involved some of the nation’s most famous social media influencers and musicians, yet it fails to comment fully on why it happened, why it was able to get so large despite being built on nothing, what it says about social media and influencer culture, and where we should go from here.
The closest the film comes to having editorial authority over its subject matter is the statement that it’s a good time to be a con man in the United States, because Donald Trump is president, as he has emboldened likewise con men. But it’s thrown at the end of the film and is hardly developed. Indeed, other than their dubious business ventures and tendency to lie, Trump has little in common with MacFarland and the social media campaign made by Jerry Media that made him infamous. It’s a shame, as there was plenty of opportunity for “Fyre Fraud” to say something powerful about how social media has given a lot of power to con men, and how even the nation’s elite can be duped for their schemes, but it squanders it for elementary commentary on how social media can be bad and how millennials can be gullible and shallow that has been done to death in the news.
“Fyre Fraud” gets a 6/10